Tuesday, January 27, 2015

7 Lessons learned as Head of Customer Success in a Startup

Introducing Customer Success (CS) into a (SaaS) startup is challenging.  The software is still evolving (and not to stable), Customers want new features (yesterday), employees have 3 different jobs, field staff is limited (to non-existent), and the ones that are onboard are spread around the country away from the core development team.  Lots of fun, but challenging.  

Based on my experience in this environment, I have listed the top 7 lessons learned with the hope that it will help others.  Some of these points may be skewed by the nature of the startups where I have worked: companies that deliver a complex product/service (e.g., a data analytics platform) to Fortune 500 customers (demanding),  requiring significant integration with other technical products, all of which are also experiencing significant change and rapid evolution.  

Here are the 7 points in roughly the importance as I see it: 

 1. As head of Customer Success,  you must ensure you and the other senior leaders agree on what Customer Success is and how it will be rolled out in the company.  No matter how it is rolled out, The CEO must be on board and must make it very clear to all that this is a key initiative in the company since much of the revenue and growth of this SaaS company depends on it... because it does. 
2. Sales and Customer Success must know how they are working together with the customer.  Definition should be based on the functions that are performed with the customer such as quarterly reviews, Escalation contact, etc. (Note: the Sales person may not be the top dog in the account after the sale is complete.) 
3. All customer facing teams (e.g., CS, sales, Support) must balance the needs and wants of the customer with the skills and availability of the supporting teams (e.g., engineering, prof. services, etc.)  We can’t say yes to everything the customer asks for.  (This is probably more about the nature of a startup vs. Customer Success.)
4. You as the Senior CS executive must spend time with the internal teams to ensure alignment and buyin.  Ideally face to face, or if not, significant time on the phone. And, to be respected and accepted, you may need to be more technical than you had expected.  
5. In startups there are a lot of feature requests that come from customers.  There must be a way to track these requests, ensure the development team is applying the proper weight to these requests,  and regular communication with the customer on the status of their requests. 
6. Executive Metrics must be appropriate for the maturity of the product and the company, e.g., Early stage companies will typically need to focus on Adoption and Retention, where as a more stable product or companies that offer multiple offerings will focus more on Expansion. 
7. Keep the customer processes as simple as possible - they can be scaled up in complexity when the situation warrants it.   Get a process out there early, get feedback from the customers and adjust as quickly as possible. Improvement will help the customer stick with you as a vendor and keep them happy(er). 

Do you have other lessons to share as one of the first CS people in the company? 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Who "owns" the customer relationship?

I had an interesting conversation this week with an Account Executive (Sales) at a SaaS company.   We were talking about how, in many companies, the Account Executive "owns" the customer relationship. However, in his current company the post-sale team owns the relationship and it makes his job more challenging with existing customers.  So, the question is, who should "own" the customer relationship in a SaaS company? The answer to this question dictates how the internal processes are executed. Everyone brings different skillsets to the table, and all are needed at different times in the customer's "life" with your company.   Does one particular organization (e.g., Customer Success) need to own the customer relationship or is a different model appropriate in a SaaS company?

First, I am really talking about SaaS companies that have high-touch services that require ongoing involvement of the vendor with the customer. If your company has many customers and the relationship post-sale is low-touch, this probably doesn't apply nearly as much.  In this case the "face" of the company is the indirect interactions such as your email pushes and texts.  It also includes all the interactions where the customer contacts you for things such as customer support, re-orders, etc.   To the extent you can personalize that, the better. So, for example, I interact with a person when I have an issue and I have a phone call or a chat session with the company and I talk with "Joe" or "Mary" from customer support.

In a high-touch SaaS company it is different.  From the customer's point of view, multiple vendor people/functions interact with them and the customer should never have to think about who they are dealing with - Customer Success Manager, Sales Exec, Customer Support.  Each should be handling the need of the customer flawlessly. That should be the goal of a SaaS company, so the question is not what does the customer need;  the question what does the SaaS company need to be most successful.  If the Sales Exec doesn't hear about a potential need in the customer's organization, will an incremental sale be made, or will it be passed up? If the Sales team owns the relationship, will the customer go to them first when they should be going to a Customer Success Manager?

I have some thoughts on this that I will post as a follow up.  What are your thoughts on this? How should the customer relationship be managed in a high-touch, SaaS company? What should the responsibilities be?  What technology can be used as part of the solution?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Shouldn't Startups like "new"? Lessons learned

I have now had 2 different roles where I was responsible for building a new capability in a startup technology company.  Both ended much quicker than I had hoped, so there should be some lessons learned, right?

My first role was to create a professional services capability in a video streaming company.  Customer facing, expected to bring additional revenue, not a core competency of the company. My second, building Customer Success for a very early stage data analytics company.  Again customer facing. My responsibility was to put customer success process in place and deliver more satisfied customers, and again not a core competency of the company.  Both require non-technical skills for the most part - at least that was my belief.

What are the lessons I learned?
1. It is hard to create a new capability in a startup. There is typically a very narrow focus in an startup  (by necessity) and so adding new capabilities adds overhead and is distracting.  Ownership of the initiative from the top is essential because of this.
2. A new, customer-facing capability is as much about what the customer needs as it is about what the company resources can (and can't) do.  A balance is required so you don't promise more to the customer than your company is capable of delivering.
3. You need to be technical.  Even if you don't think you need it, you need it.  I believe this is primarily true in a startup vs. a more established company that has adequate technical resources.   Sales is the only organization in a startup that can claim they aren't technical and get away with it.
4. Over communicate what you are thinking and doing.   And really think about how that communication should happen - many senior execs want to talk, not read email. And no matter how you decide to communication generally, have the difficult conversations in person.
5. Don't expect your senior management knows what you are doing.  In a startup it seems there is generally less communication between people because everyone is overburdened with things to do and there is less process to keep people close.  If you are not directly reporting to the CEO, they probably don't have a clue about what you are doing unless you have consistent contact with them.  Make that a priority.